Over the past few days, the sun took its time, shining its brightest light only during the late afternoon hours. Those rays were still not its strongest and the people of the city of Bangalore struggled to make their normal routines work, constantly fighting their inner sloths. Even the trees seemed to be lazy, swaying slowly in the soft breeze, stopping only for a few seconds to shake the chill of their trunks. The clouds grazed through the sky, white fluffy masses, no shapes seen in these thick cotton-like balls. Even the Mobile Tailor who rode his 19th century bike through the alleys of Kellur was softer in his screams, reluctant to disturb the calm.
Kalya was ignorant to the misty morning. Her mind was a badly written essay; thoughts muddled and words indiscernible. She didn’t know what ‘anxiety’ was but the tingling sensation on her fingertips and the thumps of her heartbeat made her understand that she was scared. Today was the day that the plan was about to be set into motion; a plan not of her own, but the responsibility of which, lay on her shoulders.
Dinesh Sir had promised her a brand-new phone for Deepawali. He often made her such promises when he sensed her spirit was breaking. Her thoughts often wondered to the soft touch of his hands, the lingering cologne on the nap of his neck and his sly eyes as he watched her bend down to the clean the floor of his four-bedroom apartment. The bile in her stomach rose frequently when she entered the home, because the cardinal sin they were engaging in was no longer a thing that could be ignored.
Malani Ma’am never suspected a thing. Kalya was a child to her, a child whose innocence was as fresh as the morning sun. But the sun refused to shine nowadays and Kalya hoped it wouldn’t give her away.
What upset her the most was seeing the children hug their father every morning. They did not know him for who he was. To them, he was a strong man of good faith, a man whose morals made him almost god-like.
The first time he touched her she flinched, she was 18 and did not what to accept those feared but familiar feelings that rose inside of her. Her back froze and her pulse raced. Her mind strained to understand the possibility that this man who she used to call Uncle years ago, had intentions that were not pure. She turned to face him and saw the passion in his eyes. She had seen that look many times before; on a crowded bus, in a busy lane, even in her own home, a look that no woman should ever willingly accept. But she accepted it, because she knew a dismissal of it would mean the end of her.
Sometimes, to recede away from the conflict of her mind, she reminisced on her childhood; playing in the dirt and gravel of the construction site where Appa worked. Years of sunburn had made her hair brown and her skin black, but she didn’t mind. She looked forward to those few days where Appa made a little more than 50 rupees if one of the masters felt kind, or if a festival was around the corner. Those days meant he would swoop her up on his shoulders and take her to have Gola, those days when he worked hard for the family, those days when he didn’t succumb to cheap alcohols.
She arrived at Dinesh Sir’s house promptly that morning and began the daily chores: boiling the milk, making chapatis and a side dish for breakfast, washing the utensils and dishes left over from the previous day, hand scrubbing the soft inner garments and sweeping and mopping the floor. Her body had stiffened over the last few days, her back constantly ached and her stomach gave way at the slightest spice. But she toiled on, any sign of slack and Ma’am would let her know, passively commenting on how the current generation of ‘servant-class’ seemed to lack the motivation to earn their wages. Kalya used to have a chuckle on hearing this – did Ma’am really believe that the youngsters of her class were the same as their parents? – Well maybe they still mopped the floors, but their mind was rebellious with the anger of a cow ready to run over his master in a field.
The family gathered around the dining room table to have their morning beverages: the adults sipping on their coffee and the kids, reluctantly gulping their Bournvita before the morning nausea kicked in. Even Kalya sat down on the dinning room floor, having a glass of flat Miranda. A funny drink to have mid morning she thought, but Malani Ma’am hated those fizzy liquids the kids so loved and couldn’t wait to pour the last bit of it for Kalya.
The mistress began to look a little distraught, her vision appearing to blur. Kalya took this as a sign that the medicine was working.
“Dinesh, I am feeling a little light-headed, can you get me some sugar please?”, Malini Ma’am asked.
At this, he immediately got up and pointed to his mobile phone, signalling to her that he was getting an important call. He left the table and Kalya watched as the rest of them drowsily struggled to keep their heads up. The medicine had taken effect faster than she anticipated. Minutes later, Dinesh Sir walked back into the hall and carefully picked them off the chairs, laying their bodies on the floor.
“Now Kalya, do as I say – pick up all the expensive items from the cabinets and cupboards and put it into the cottage bag.”
And so, she did, knowing fully well what things in the house had the highest value.
Dinesh Sir himself proceeded to help her, stopping now and again to make sure nothing was missed. Then together, they cleaned the cups, saucers, milk boiler and any other utensil that could tie them to the crime. Standing there at the kitchen sink, she almost felt normal – just a husband and wife washing vessels – a lie that almost felt true.
No sooner did Kalya feel herself calming down a bit, than a ring from the doorbell startle her out of her senses.
“Who could that be?”, Dinesh said, a slight frown developing at the side of his lips.
He pushed the bodies of his family into the bedroom and answered the door.
“Saar! How are you? How is family? I am here to invite you to the wedding of my daughter in Thiruvananthapuram! Big wedding, all relatives from different parts of the state will be coming. It is biggest family wedding and I am paying for it all!”
Hiding in the kitchen, she knew who it was: the broker who helped the Rajkirans find this lovely home. She could just picture his bulging eyes grow bigger in excitement as he showed off another medal in the race to beat the stature of being lower middle class.
“Thank you so much Narayan, we will definitely try our best to be there.”
Kalya could hear the words being minced between his teeth and within a few seconds the astutely dressed Narayan was gone.
All luxuries being basketed, he paused for a moment to check on his loved ones, grazing his finger over their noses. Kalya almost laughed, marvelling at the hypocrisy of it all. A rich man leaving everything for a servant girl – he was a fool, because he followed his loins more than he did his mind.
Dinesh Sir dressed the part of a rich man: tailored suits and expensive watches. Kalya polished his shoes every day, and he inspected their shininess before putting them on. But for all these copious vanities, he still ate rice till it reached his knuckles and burped his loudest after every meal.
He couldn’t leave Malani Ma’am because a divorce was not something her family would entertain. He loved his children enough to act as a role model but not as much to attend every Sports Day and Parent Teacher Meeting . Kalya always referred to his nature in her mind as that of a pig; greedy for all that it could have but too lazy to pursue it.
One day as he and Kalya lay on the bed of the master bedroom, she couldn’t hold back her tears any longer.
“Sir, I cannot be like this. It is not letting me sleep at night, I must tell Malani Ma’am the truth and be free. I will leave this job and go to my village.”
He slowly pulled back the strands of brown hair that were strewn across her face, “Kalya, you must not…”
Just then Karan, the youngest child came running into the room, proud to show off his second-place certificate in Drawing and now confused seeing the two of them lying in bed together.
Dinesh Sir was flying off the bed in a second, coaxing the boy into the kitchen and buying his silence, unbeknownst to him, with sweet Kulfi’s from the freezer.
Straightening out the bedsheet and fluffing the pillows, Kalya hoped the boy would forget or wouldn’t suddenly be inclined to remember it should his mother randomly ask him what he thought of Kalya.
From these mistakes and Kalya’s growing adamance to admit her guilt and end things, was born the plan to finally put them both at ease. Dinesh was the mastermind behind everything: add medicine to the family’s morning drinks, pretend that he and Kalya were drugged too, collect all the valuables from the house and hide it in the park, sell it and use that money to start a life together. Malani Ma’am’s family had many enemies and the Rajkirans were known to flaunt their riches, so maybe people would believe it and by the time anyone could put things together, the both of them would be gone. The plan seemed a little off to Kalya, but at this point she would do anything to get away from Bangalore. A rich man by her side didn’t sound like a bad idea either; she had lived a life of subjugation and poverty and this may be God’s way of apologizing for that.
And then suddenly, words she thought she’d never hear:
“They are not breathing, Kalya.”
She could feel the blood rushing to her head, her throat drying, her heart doing a 100-meter dash.
“Sir! What you saying! I put off only few spoons into the milk, how this happened!”
“Few spoons! Have you gone mental? I said: one drop! One drop! Kalya, you have killed them, they should have been moving a bit by now but they are cold as stone. Their breaths belong to god now.”
The sun was up earlier than usual today and it shone directly into her eyes from the French Windows of the hall. Its warmth was almost soothing but couldn’t keep her head steady.
“What to do, Sir?! I am scared for myself.”
“Go, run, do not ever show your face here. We must both escape before the police catch us. Take the cottage bag and leave it in the dustbin under the lamppost at Puleshnagar park. I will collect it from there and sell its contents to the pawn shops. You take a bus to Belgaum and call me as soon as you reach. I will try to meet you there in a few days. We are both criminals now and must not be captured.”
Before she could get any words out, she was running, heading straight for the park, which was only a few roads away. A pause came over her as her hands hovered over the dustbin: Did she really want to leave all these prized possessions? Of course, she did. Because if she got caught with it, her life would be over.
Back home, Amma was lying on the broken mattress, asleep. The plaster had peeled off the walls of their four cornered house, the smell of dirty rags and mould hanging in the air. She packed all her things: two sets of clothes, a pair of gold earrings, her Aadhar card and passport and her makeshift wallet. She wanted to say bye to Amma, but couldn’t risk implicating her.
On the bus, she was seated next to an elderly man; his skin wrinkled to the wrist. His breath smelled the same as Appas’: strong and pungent – did all men drink? She refused to look at him, for the fear of seeing that same look in his eyes.
His phone number was not reachable or maybe she wasn’t dialling the right one. The food from dustbins was her only nourishment, even though it was sometimes stained red from the paan being spat into it. She prayed to God that he would forgive her for killing those innocent people and bring Dinesh Sir to her in this godforsaken place. Maybe this was her punishment – she was no different from all those men that seize women as their own, the only difference was she seized an opportunity that was not hers to have.
Her recklessness may have ended Dinesh Sir in jail. Or maybe he was dead, his lifeless body being shuttled around in a gutter somewhere. Malani Ma’am’s father was into politics and had the reputation of a madman if tempted into anger.
Weeks past and there was no sign of Dinesh Sir. She made a home out of newspapers at the bus stand, looking curiously at every bus that passed, hoping he would step off it, but he never did.
Outside the Rajkiran residence, taking refuge between the cars parked in the lane, she stood patiently. Her stomach rumbled but she remained still, the soft breeze cajoling her to lie down right there and enter a sleep much needed. But she glanced on, her eyes almost watering, until finally she saw Malani Ma’am exit the building and walk towards her; looking frantically in her purse for something.
They locked eyes and the anger in her face reminded Kalya of the actors in Kannada serials.
“Kalya, you have the audacity to come here after what you did! I am calling the police!”
“Ma’am, listen me.”
“You will tell me what to do? You just wait…”, Malani Ma’am said as she kept reaching into her purse, desperately trying to find her mobile phone.
Kalya’s face showed no emotion, just the expression of a tired woman on a cold day.
“Ma’am, what coffee does Dinesh Sir have?”
“Huh? What a stupid question! Some guts you have to show your face right in front of our home”
“Ma’am, think and tell, Ma’am.”
And then Malani froze, her breath slowing, the frigid air drying her lips.
“He takes his coffee black.”